Rybak: Partner-Citizens and the "Seventh Generation"

As I mentioned earlier, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke this morning at Governing's Managing Performance conference in Austin. He had a lot of very ...
by | October 2, 2008

As I mentioned earlier, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke this morning at Governing's Managing Performance conference in Austin. He had a lot of very interesting things to say -- especially about last year's I-35 bridge collapse, which I'll post about a bit later today.

But he also spoke about good government management concepts in general, and two of the ideas he talked about were especially interesting because they're so contrary -- so antithetical -- to most of what you hear about in local government today.

First, Rybak took apart the idea that government should treat citizens as customers. In an era when the prevailing wisdom is to treat government like a business, this almost sounds like heresy. But as Rybak said, treating your citizens like your customers ultimately shortchanges everyone.

"Our constituents are our partners. They're not customers," he said. "The whole notion of government reinvention throughout the 1990s and the early years of this decade was 'customer-focused' government. I understand why, and I think that's a great impulse. But talking about your citizens as customers completely misses the potential power of the partnership that can exist between government and the people."

As an example, Rybak mentioned Minneapolis' efforts to improve environmental awareness among citizens and to help get the city moving in a green direction. The customer-focused way would have been to hire a city environmental coordinator who would try to get the word out about what citizens should be doing to help the environment. Indeed, that was Rybak's own first impulse.

But what the city ended up doing instead -- the partner-focused solution -- was to take the money it would have spent on the environmental coordinator, and giving it to citizen groups in the form of microgrants from $1,000 to $10,000.

"We got some amazingly innovative things we never would have come up with on our own," Rybak said. Those small grants were used to fund programs like one group that went door-to-door distributing clotheslines, to help families cut down on their energy use. Another neighborhood organization used the money to teach immigrant women how to ride bicycles.

Rybak's other point about good government management was equally unconventional -- always be thinking about the "seventh generation."

According to Rybak, the Iroquois Native American nation had an overarching principle that informed government leaders: Make all your decisions by thinking about the best interests of seven generations in the future. Ask yourself: Is this the best decision for my grandchildrens' great-grandchildren?

Compared with how governments (local, state and federal) normally make decisions today, it's a pretty radical way of thinking.

Of course it comes up in issues like climate change and education, Rybak said. But it also can inform two other, much less sexy issues: infrastructure and debt-reduction.

If we don't try to keep the seventh generation in mind today, Rybak said, we're effectively creating a world in which our grandchildren are indebted to other nations (even more) and addicted to foreign oil (even more).

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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